News Story

Nuns on the Bus

February 18, 2014—The public perception of the typical nun is outdated, says Sister Ilia Delio, OSF, and she is hoping to raise awareness about the work done by nuns in marginalized communities throughout the United States.

Sister Ilia, who is the director of the university’s Catholic Studies Program, has invited four women to Georgetown to tell their stories of faith and action. On February 21, 2014, “Nuns on the Bus: Women’s Leadership After Vatican II,” will feature a panel discussion with Sister Simone Campbell, SSS; Sister Mary Johnson, SND; Sister Camilla Burns, SND; and Sister Helen Amos, RSM. “All four women are action-oriented in [their] own way,” Sister Ilia said. Each will discuss the role of nuns—also known as “women religious”—in the areas of social justice, education, leadership, and health care.

Many of these occupations were unavailable to women religious prior to 1962 when Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council, or “Vatican II.” “Pope John XXIII recognized that the Church had become out of touch with the world,” Sister Ilia explained. Before Vatican II, women religious had remained cloistered and separated from the world. As the council ushered in new changes for the Catholic Church, women religious were allowed to become more involved in outside communities.

“After Vatican II and the opening of the Church to history and to the changes of the world, that was a huge invitation to women religious to change themselves,” Sister Ilia said. “We began to see more women getting graduate degrees and taking on leadership roles in educational facilities and social centers.”

The image of nuns as grade school teachers ignores much of the social justice work done by their religious communities, Sister Ilia says. “You find a lot of women religious working with people who are marginalized,” she explained. These women are not simply working with the poor but have become vocal advocates.

One of the panel’s speakers, Sister Simone Campbell, is the executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby. NETWORK organizes “Nuns on the Bus,” which raises awareness about issues such as economic justice, health care, and immigration reform by touring throughout the United States on a bus. “We say here [at NETWORK] that we’re for the 100 percent, and polices need to reflect the best of who we are as a nation,” Sister Simone said. The Nuns on the Bus tour is part of a long tradition of social justice work by women religious in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

“There would not be, I think, a social arm of the Church without women religious,” Sister Ilia said.

The “Nuns on the Bus” panel will feature women religious from a variety of fields. Sister Helen Amos is the executive chair of the board of trustees of Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, and previously served as the center’s CEO and president. Sister Camilla Burns and Sister Mary Johnson have established careers in higher education, both serving on the faculty of religious studies and theology at Trinity Washington University.

Sister Ilia hopes “Nuns on the Bus: Women’s Leadership After Vatican II” will highlight the work done by women religious and present the unique attributes women bring to social justice action. “I think it’s really important to hear the voices of women,” she said. “Women have a great openness to keep moving—they are not stuck. They are willing to let go of what was and to engage new ways of living in the world.”

As Pope Francis has brought a new focus to the Catholic Church, many women religious wonder about the role of women in the Church. “Women religious are still seeking their role in this new open Church,” Sister Ilia said.

“I think it’s important going forward [that] the Church come to a greater level of mutuality [and] that we can share in this Church life together.”

—Elizabeth Wilson

Related Information

“Nuns on the Bus: Women’s Leadership After Vatican II” will be held on February 21, 2014, 4:00–5:30 p.m., in Lohrfink Auditorium. “Nuns on the Bus” is co-sponsored by the Georgetown Women’s Center and the Biondi-Copeland Family Fund. Please RSVP at

The event will include:

  • Sister Helen Amos, RSM, Executive Chair of the Board of Trustees of Mercy Medical Center.
  • Sister Camilla Burns, SND, Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at Trinity Washington University
  • Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, Executive Director of NETWORK
  • Sister Mary Johnson, SND, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at Trinity Washington University.